The Wind Rises is radically different from anything he has made before, and I think there was some deliberate care into selecting this, notwithstanding the fact that Miyazaki previously wrote a serialized manga based on this story. Miyazaki's final animation is based loosely on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed warcraft planes for Japan in the midst of World War II.
Although there has been some criticism on both Horikoshi and Miyazaki's choice of him, I think the reason lies in what Horikoshi said -- that above all in life, he wanted to create something beautiful.
The Wind Rises differs from Miyazaki's earlier movies in that it's firmly rooted in the corporal world and outlines some of the major events that happened in Japan leading up to and during World War II, including the Great Kanto earthquake (brought to horrific life through some eerie voice effects and nightmarish animation). The animation only ventures into the fantastical during brief moments -- during Horikoshi's frequent dream sequences and some of those surreal moments that reality tends to blur for us even when we're experiencing them firsthand. It's lovely to see what Miyazaki does during these scenes and this is really his forte. I enjoy watching skilled animations that are made with care, because you know that there's an incredible amount of thought that goes into the placement of everything within the screen.
The movie operates chiefly as a biopic. It often feels hurried and undeveloped -- and the dreamy drifting as well as the literary and artistic nods (Thomas Mann's protagonist from The Magic Mountain, for one makes an appearance) make it seem almost Murakami-like at times. Although there are admittedly some elements that are taken for granted, the movie too easily glosses over moments that could be prolonged or explained better. The movie attempts to shoehorn in references from time to time to catch the audience up on how many years have passed since the last scene ("how many years have you been working here now?" "This is my fifth year.") which become more and more obvious at iteration.
Miyazaki's pacifism sends mixed messages at times -- how are we as an audience supposed to feel in the face of the desire to create something beautiful that is hemmed in with so much that is horrifying? We are shown very little of the actual war, but perhaps that's a conversation to continue post-movie involving cultural ramifications and what constitutes as our duty to our home.
Perhaps to fit in with Miyazaki's change, his lifetime partner in composition Joe Hisaishi also takes on a different note with his soundtrack - giving a more nostalgic and less dramatically sweeping backdrop.
Despite its faults however, The Wind Rises is a fitting send-off for director Hayao Miyazaki, who truly gave us a beautiful creation with each of his animations during his prolific and brilliant career.